Instagram Is A Cult
(But I'm hooked on the Kool-Aid)
By Simon Webster
Header photo via.
It found me when I was vulnerable.
I had turned away from the church of Facebook – the constant shouting matches and the endless clickbait had become too much – and for a blissful year I meandered about, unaffiliated with any formal online organisation.
But then I let my guard down. I got soft. This new siren of social media – Insta-something – was wooing me.
It seemed different, at first. There was no advertising. I thought to myself, this one can’t be bought. Old currencies mean nothing here – this is a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter whether you are from the minutest of minorities, or if you’re poorer than Twist. Here, so long as your photos are cool, you’ll be thumbed upwards.
I was intrigued. I wanted to learn more
So I signed up.
As with all good cults, when you sign up you are given a new identity. @grimpil, I went with. Just a mixed-up pilgrim.
I began to follow people whose feeds pricked my interest. I found insights into different ways of experiencing the world – a girl in New Jersey photographing suburban life, with an acute appreciation for tiny moments, just 30 miles from the world’s first great metropolis; the young Palestinian father who, between work and his family, documented life in Gaza; the associated press correspondent entrenched in North Korea with an iPhone and Wi-Fi access. The world seemed to be egalitarian, here. The pyramids of power were flattened – anyone with a good eye and a subject to photograph now had a voice. And I was listening.
Creativity was affirmed with positivity. This community seemed intent on thrusting others upwards, not dragging them down. I felt a kinship; I wanted to share with these people.
Soon, celebrities began to walk amongst us – a mark of progress for any good cult – and we were understandably excited. Some members shared tales of their encounters with these demigods:
@jamesfrancotv liked my photo 14/04/2013.
@mileycyrus follows me.
It was as if the pope had touched a hem.
Or perhaps, it was as if a coattail was there to be grabbed.
You see, that was what we were being offered in this new community: a chance to move upwards.
Keep working away diligently, impress the right people, and you’ll go far. Kudos became the new currency.
Some people, newer converts perhaps, members less aligned with the founding ideals, began seeking shortcuts. #like4like #followme #blonde
On a photo of a waterfall.
As if the vulgar filter and obvious composition wasn’t aimed square enough at the fat part of the curve.
Some of us became unsettled. This isn’t what we signed up for, our chorus rang. The community that we had built was being infiltrated, becoming a conduit for sycophants and snake oil salesmen.
Still, there were no ads. If you were careful, you could avoid the worst of it. There were pure pockets, in tact, the dream alive. We consoled ourselves.
Then it happened.
The collapse, as with a well-executed demolition, came from within. I should have listened to MJ when he warned about the man in the mirror. But I mistook prophecy for pop tune.
I was becoming impatient, worried that other members were being promoted ahead of me. I tried to ignore it, to focus on my own lot, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be overlooked, kept out of the inner circle. So I began to hashtag.
For a while I told myself that it was fine. But each photo I posted seemed to take me further away from myself – my true self, the one from the real world, the one my friends and family knew. And as my new, online identity went from being an approximation of me, to an echo, to a gist, I began attracting more kudos. It was a self-fulfilling, self-feeding spiral.
In moments of clarity, I would ask myself: what do you think is going to happen? Did I really think @natgeo were going to poach me, send me to Myanmar on a dangerous and elusive assignment, recognising my penchant for...for what?
What was I doing that ten thousand other people weren’t also doing?
So I upped my game. I started putting out more nets. I added #liveauthentic to some travel photographs, and the number of likes increased. Did it matter that the curated feed for that hashtag looked more like a catalogue for American Apparel-wearing lumberjacks? #authentic had become a brand, a carefully groomed, purposefully assembled, targeted construction. It didn’t seem so authentic.
#livefolk could more fittingly be #livefau.
But then, was I reading too much into the literal meanings of the composite words of hashtags? I told myself ‘yes’. I had to tell myself ‘yes’.
I really knew I had lost my way when I waded into the #vsco waters. What was vsco? I didn’t exactly know. But they had a large following, and curated some cool images. I just need them to accept one of mine, and then I’d have made it, I thought. I tagged a bunch of my photos with #vsco, and noticed an increased response from the more photo-savvy types. That easy, huh? I thought I better learn a little more about this company, so I Googled them, and that was when I realised what I’d done. I was tagging photos that I had taken – film photos – with the moniker of a company that sold Apps, which emulate the look of film.
I suppose that was my Katie Holmes moment. I realised I’d been sucked in. Like Dorian Gray stumbling across his grotesque portrait in the attic, I’d caught a glimpse of my own virtual fallacy. I chased momentum, I cooed with the crowd, and ended up the fool.
Well, I remain friends with many people I met in those days. We still take an active interest in each other’s lives, but for now, I’ve cooled off. I no longer think of future travel as a bounty of potential Instagram posts; I enjoy my experiences whilst I am in them, not once I’ve relayed them to my followers.
Honestly, I think I’ve grown. Truthfully, I think I’ve moved on.
Ah, who am I kidding, I’m going travelling soon - #bulk #likes #to #come!